Disabled access on the Hong Kong MTR

For a railway network built only a few decades ago, access for disabled people to Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway leaves something to be desired. With much of the original network only recently made accessible, why did stairs and escalators rule the system?

Escalators at Tai Wai station


The story starts in the 1970s, when the Mass Transit Railway was still in the design phase. Mee-lan Wong’s 1997 thesis titled “A study of the implementation of the Hong Kong government’s policy in the provision of transportation for the disabled” goes into further detail:

The Coalition of Access of the MTR for Disabled Persons argued that the MTR system should be accessible to all people. The MTRC, on the other hand, argued that it would be operationally unsafe to allow disabled persons to use the system.

The MTRC’s assertion was based on a consultancy study completed in 1973. The study found that it would be inappropriate to allow disabled persons to use the system due to the high passengers flows.

Despite much bargaining and negotiation with government, the Coalition failed to persuade the MTRC to change its decision. As a result, there is no provision of access facilities for disabled persons in the MTR system.

This lack of access facilities can be seen across the Island, Kwun Tong and Tsuen Wan lines that formed the first phase of the MTR system: each station has stairs from street level to the concourse, turnstiles instead of gates into the paid area, and finally escalators down to the platforms – catching the train is quite a hike.

Passing through the turnstiles at Mong Kok

It took until 1991 for the MTR to review their policy, when the decision was made that all new lines would be built with accessibility in mind, and all existing stations would be progressively retrofitted to meet modern accessibility standards. Since then, the newly built Airport Express, Tung Chung, Tseung Kwan O and Disneyland Resort railway lines have all been designed and built to give equal access for all passengers.

As for the existing network, in the four years from 1992 the MTR brought the number of stations accessible to disabled users, including the wheelchair-bound, from zero to 35 out of the 38 stations on the network, and by 2006 HK$400 million had been spent on retrofitting existing stations, with an additional HK$100 million committed in the five years to 2011.

The nature of the retrofit works varied from station to station, depending on the restrictions of the site, and included works such as lifts, stair lifts, wheelchair aids, ramps and wide ticket gates. Despite the effort made, not all stations entrances are fully accessible, as devices such as stair lifts and wheelchair aids force intending users to wait for staff assistance, limiting their independence.

The final aim of the retrofit program is to provide at least one external lift at every station to connect the station concourse area with the street level. By 2013 all but nine of the 83 stations had this facility, with work under way to install lifts at seven more stations by 2015, leaving only deep level stations at Fortress Hill and Tin Hau subject to further design investigation.

Accessibility features

The vast majority of MTR stations have multiple entrances: usually stairs between ground level and the concourse are provided, with external lifts being the exception.

Entry to the MTR at Shau Kei Wan station

Back in 2010 Prince Edward Station didn’t have an external lift, so the use of a stair lift was required for passengers in wheelchairs.

MTR staff assisting a wheelchair bound passenger out of Prince Edward Station

The original MTR stations used turnstiles to enforce the payment of fares, which are difficult for the less able bodied to pass through.

Outbound turnstiles at Jordan station

Newer stations use ticket gates to do the same job with less restrictions.

Station exit at Po Lam: it heads straight from the platform out to the street

While older stations have been retrofitted with wide gates to give wheelchair access.

Stuck in the 1980s on Hong Kong's KCR

Once inside, tactile paths direct the vision impaired towards the trains.

Chai Wan station: train on platform 1 waits for passengers, as a train arrives on platform 2

Across the newer parts of the network, level access between train and platform is standard.

ADtranz CAF badge on the doorstep of an A-stock train

However on the older East Rail line, wheelchair ramps are required to bridge the gap.

MTR staff assist a wheelchair bound passenger onboard a train

Once onboard the train, wheelchair areas are provided.

Wheelchair area on a MTR train

Things I haven’t seen elsewhere

Audible warning signals are installed at each escalator, either at platform and/or concourse level, with different tones allowing the vision impaired to determine which was the escalator is running.

Audible warning signal at the approach to an escalator

They make a continual clicking noise, that would get very annoying if you are standing nearby, except for the fact you’re never waiting very long for a train on the MTR!

Another feature are tactile station maps.

Tactile map for the use of visually impaired train passengers

The Braille text provides guidance information, while the map itself is three dimensional, describing the accessible routes through the station.

The finishing touch is the cute musical tune that it plays, allowing the vision impaired to find it among the busy station!

One set forwards, one step backwards

Once upon a time, Single Journey Ticket machines were simple – push a button and it would spit out a ticket. However these machines have since been replaced across the MTR network by touchscreen devices – which are unusable by many vision impaired people.

Single Journey Ticket machines, beside Octopus Add Value and Check Value machines, at Hong Kong station

The South China Morning Post wrote about the issue in the early stage of the rollout:

Machines on MTR ‘a problem’
11 May 1998

The trend towards touch-screen ticket machines is causing problems for the blind.

The Hong Kong Blind Union said that because the MTR’s new single-journey machines used touch-screen technology the blind would be left with no choice but to use the Octopus card.

‘The single-journey machines are all of touch-screen mode and the customer service counter is often too difficult to locate,’ the union’s transport spokesman, Damon Leung Kau, said. ‘The service is unfair to the visually impaired who are not frequent travellers on the MTR and cannot choose to buy single-journey tickets like other passengers.

‘We pay the same amount but cannot get the same treatment,’ he added.

An MTR spokesman said the company was unable to say if it might buy new machines to rectify the problem, adding it would not ‘for the time being’ as most machines were new and providing sufficient service.

In the years since it appears nothing has changed – forcing the vision impaired to buy tickets from staff, or switch to an Octopus card.

Quick links

Further reading

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6 Responses to Disabled access on the Hong Kong MTR

  1. Thank you Marcus for most interesting article.
    Article will be linked in my March 3 Ming Pao article “Australian in HK” (text here:
    http://www.oneminuteenglish.com/mp/2015/2015-03-03MTR-street-level-lifts.htm) and will be at MP site on afternoon (HK time) of March 3: http://english.mingpao.com/cfm/database2a.cfm?SubCategory=hklife

  2. Pingback: New 'lift only' MTR station entrances - Checkerboard Hill

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  4. Veronica Veron Cruz Wong says:

    Where are the lifts going to the MTR from the ground floor (public)? Thank you

  5. Pingback: Public toilets in MTR stations - Checkerboard Hill

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